You're not a downer, Stefan—you've hit the nail on the head. More than anything, Sunday's Super Bowl showed us how corny things can get when the people in charge feel like they can't miss. As we've heard a million times this season, NFL football is more popular than ever. Conventional wisdom in the board room is to see that as a green light to juice up everything: the national anthem, the halftime show, the coin toss, the commentary, the hype. The game action was the only watchable part of the telecast.
Watching that kitschy production, it's clear what the players' association is up against as it steps to the negotiation table—fireworks and spacesuits and lots of money. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is the poster child of this labor dispute. He claims that the players make too much money, that the owners need more of the league's revenue so they can do … what exactly? "I built a stadium and that stadium costs money," Jones said last May. "And by the way, as everybody knows, you've got to pay the utilities and the expense of doing it. Let's figure that in the equation." So, if the oil man gets his way, we'll get more of what we saw last night—stadiums overstuffed with seats until the fire marshal says it's time to stop. There is such a thing as oversaturation, but Jones doesn't believe that. Last night's production was his baby. Nothing happened in that stadium that he didn't oversee. And it was lame. He'll run this thing into a brick wall unless someone stops him.
It was interesting for me to watch just how different the Super Bowl game experience is from a typical NFL game. As a player, there is so much production to contend with that it doesn't feel like you are going out to compete. It seems like you are just one of the many attractions at a carnival or a theme park. There was so much standing around, so many TV timeouts and video montages and performances and awards, that I'm sure it was hard for the players to get in their normal rhythm. And if they were in a rhythm heading into the game, Christina Aguilera surely shook them out of it. Hopefully they didn't have televisions in the locker room during the halftime show. That was awful.
But once again, football saved the night. The better team won, the right story was told. Now no one has to try to explain why good things happen to bad people (allegedly). And the Green Bay Packers did it the right way. It sounds cliché, but in the NFL, you really do have to take it one game at a time and find a way to persevere. The ups and downs of a season are too fierce for some teams. They get extremely high on themselves after a string of wins, then fall apart. The Packers never did this, and never lost a beat despite a string of injuries that would've sunk most teams.
Josh, you mentioned the controversy over the injured Green Bay players and the team's Super Bowl photo. The fact that Nick Barnett and Jermichael Finley expressed their displeasure about getting left out was less a signal of a team divided than a reminder that it sucks to be on injured reserve. Players who are on IR don't participate in anything—they don't travel, don't go to meetings, and don't go to practice. Once you get hurt, you're a ghost at the facility. It's not the coach's job to coddle guys who are done for the season—it's up to them to get healthy and rehab aggressively. Of course they feel left out. It's almost worse when your team is doing well, because you wish so badly you were a part of it and your ego makes it hard to believe the team could be doing so well without you. But inside the organization, I can guarantee you that no one really cares. So, two players Twittered about it—that's tantamount, pre-Twitter, to them talking about it to some friends.
As far as I'm concerned, the stuff about the team photo does nothing to undermine Mike McCarthy's credibility as a coach. Superstars like Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews get all of the praise and take all of the blame. But the true measure of a team—and the true measure of a coach's ability—is how the roster stacks up from top to bottom. Every single player on every NFL team is supremely talented, and deserves to be where he is. The vetting process is thorough and intense. The talent level from team to team is virtually identical. It is not uncommon for a practice squad receiver to torch a Pro Bowl cornerback on a regular basis in practice, or for a third-string defensive end to continually put pressure on the first-string quarterback, making the starting offensive line look foolish and prompting drill-halting lectures. A good team is a deep team, one in which battles can be won, depending on the day, by anyone.
Coaches know this, and the best coaches know how to show their players that they know it. At one time, every player in the NFL thought that he would be a star. When his glorious college days were coming to an end, as he was being courted by agents and scouts, he believed that he could duplicate his college stats in the pros. Of course, this doesn't happen. The majority of players are relegated to the practice squad, special teams, and the second string. But the irony is that these players end up making the difference between good and bad teams.
A good coach knows how to make players with diminished roles feel as important to the team as they actually are. It's a coach's every-day behavior that will make his players believe he cares—the way he deals with veterans, his ethics when making cuts, his refusal to play favorites or overtrain or disrespect players. A wide receiver, for example, is validated by little else than catching passes. That's all he wants. But in the NFL, only a few guys on each team get balls thrown their way. So that receiver has to play special teams. If he doesn't feel like he's a real part of the team, like his effort matters, then you won't get his best shot on every play.
In the Super Bowl, little-used backups like Frank Zombo and Jarrett Bush were essential to the Packers' victory. The next guy coming in has to be just as capable, so no one has to pick up his slack and the machine keeps humming along. All of the plays involving all of the players you have never heard of add up and produce Super Bowl champions. Watching the way Green Bay plays, I can tell that Mike McCarthy has supreme confidence in his players and tells them about it every day, until they don't question it anymore. They don't wonder if he really cares. They don't wonder if he is sincere. With this small amount of breathing room from the paranoia that's fostered in many NFL locker rooms, players are free to be themselves and bond with each other, absolute imperatives to creating a special football team. Mike Tomlin creates the same atmosphere. That's why both of these teams were in the Super Bowl.
NFL ownership could learn a few lessons from these young coaches. They treat the game and their players with respect, they keep an even temperament, and they eschew the glamour and glitz for a more measured approach. The result is excellent football. That's what America loves. Everything else is just halftime music.